What About Beirut?

Dave Johnson

The day before the Paris terrorist attacks, “the Paris of the Middle East” – Beirut – was attacked by ISIS. Terrorist set off two bombs in a busy shopping area, killing more than 40 people and injuring more than 240.

Then, on Sunday, a string of ISIS bombs in Baghdad killed at least 7 people and injured 15 others.

The terrible attacks on Paris have ignited a fury of reaction. But the Paris attacks were just part of a series of ongoing attacks by ISIS. Civilians have been attacked by ISIS all across the Middle East, in Iraq, in Syria and most recently in Beirut. The wave of refugees entering Europe are people fleeing ISIS attacks along with the Syrian civil war.

The recent ISIS attacks in Arab countries are barely mentioned in the discussion of ISIS and terrorism. The outpouring of sympathy for and solidarity with people in Paris is not matched by sympathy and solidarity for the people in the Middle East who are constantly suffering similar attacks. Why not?

Do Arab lives matter less than non-Arab lives? Was it because the attack on Paris is an excuse to cast this as an Islam vs. West battle?

The New York Times reported on this lack of discussion of what happened in Beirut, in “Beirut, Also the Site of Deadly Attacks, Feels Forgotten“:

But for some in Beirut, that solidarity was mixed with anguish over the fact that just one of the stricken cities — Paris — received a global outpouring of sympathy akin to the one lavished on the United States after the 9/11 attacks.

Monuments around the world lit up in the colors of the French flag; presidential speeches touted the need to defend “shared values;” Facebook offered users a one-click option to overlay their profile pictures with the French tricolor, a service not offered for the Lebanese flag. On Friday the social media giant even activated Safety Check, a feature usually reserved for natural disasters that lets people alert loved ones that they are unhurt; they had not activated it the day before for Beirut.

David Shariatmadari writes at The Guardian, in “Isis hates Middle Eastern civilisation too“:

The terrorists certainly had civilisation in their crosshairs. They spread chaos and killing through a city famous for its culture, its intermingling of influences, its freedom of expression. In as much as they targeted one of Europe’s great capitals, it was an assault on European values – the way our citizens choose to live and behave. However, it is wrong to frame the atrocities as attacks on “western civilisation” alone.

[. . .]

First of all, it downplays the suffering of Middle Easterners at the hands of Isis. On Thursday, for example, 43 people in a mainly Shia part of Beirut were murdered by Isis suicide bombers. Although that city is far more used to violence than Paris, it still represented an assault on normal, civilised life. The most immediate opponents of the violent jihadists are the people they live among – the Muslims, Christians, Alawites and Yazidis of Iraq and Syria…

Secondly, it distorts our ability to recognise who our proper allies are. There is a broad risk of tarring the whole Middle East with the brush of extremism – as though the violent ideology of Isis is typical of the entire region, and life across it carries on in an utterly different mode to our own. Here in the west, that can mean those of Arab or Muslim heritage being blamed and abused.

Freedom Fries

In 2003, conservatives blasted France for its reluctance to join in the invasion of Iraq. They called the French “surrender monkeys” and renamed French fries on congressional cafeteria menus to “Freedom fries”.

Now that the consequences of that invasion have, as Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont put it in Saturday’s Democratic debate “unraveled the region completely,” conservatives have unleashed a wave of hatred for the people fleeing attacks like those in Beirut, Baghdad and especially Syria.

These are the same people who were trying to keep children fleeing violence from Central America from receiving asylum in the U.S.

These are the same people who were trying to keep people from Africa out of the U.S. because of Ebola.

And now the same people are saying the U.S. should not even allow orphans – even those under the age of 5 – into the country because they might be “terrorists.”

It Is Not About “We”

We can’t say there is a “we” behind this special resonance of Paris. It is not a “we” of civilization; Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. We can’t say this is “Westerners” expressing a sympathy of similars; there are millions of people in the U.S. who are of Middle Eastern descent, and they are part of the “we” that is the United States. There are millions more who constitute the “we” of Europe.

So what about Beirut? What is it about the people in Beirut – and Baghdad and Syria and so many other places under attack by ISIS – that makes them somehow different from the people in Paris, somehow less worthy of our attention and empathy and solidarity?

ISIS is at war with humanity, and those of us who are human should express our sympathy for and solidarity with all humans suffering these attacks.

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